When to Fire a Rude Customer and How to Go About It
Clients make or break our veterinary practices. Without them, we have no patients, no appointments, and ultimately, no purpose. Our favorite clients are courteous, open to advice, and willing to pursue the best treatments for their pets. Others are more challenging, and some are downright rude. In the current highly charged environment, we're seeing more of the latter, and that leads to more anger and frustration directed at our teams.
As managers, we have to find the balance between protecting our teams from clients who are not a good fit while accepting that others may just be having a bad day and should be given a pass. And most importantly, we need to recognize when it's time to fire a client.
When to Fire a Client
After a long exhausting day, it can be easy to want to avoid any client who seems to question everything you do. Sometimes, though, this is just a reflection of their worry about their pet—and the desire to make sure their pet gets the best care. But sometimes it goes too far.
That's why it's important to establish rules to determine when it's time for the practice and client to part ways. They can be broadly grouped into two: Red lines and cumulative behaviors.
The first things to lay down are the red lines that, when crossed, require immediate termination of the client. Examples of our red lines are as follows:
- Violence: Actual physical violence, or threats of violence.
- Sexual harassment: Any form of unwanted touching or lewd behavior.
- Theft: Refusal to pay for services or products after determining the charges are valid.
- Animal cruelty: Either deliberately or through inaction.
Sometimes, actions do not represent immediate loss or danger for the practice, but over time, these cumulative behaviors sap team morale and undermine the work we do. It is OK if these things happen occasionally, but a small number of rude customers will persist in them. These examples include:
- Missing appointments: Regularly failing to come to appointments without notice.
- Undermining value: Constantly complaining about the price of services.
- Refusing to take advice: Fighting with doctors, for example, about needing blood work or giving an antibiotic.
I would expect any member of our team to tell a client to leave if they crossed a red line. Cumulative behavior decisions, on the other hand, are made by the owner. Usually, the team will flag an issue to us, and we then review records in our practice management software to spot patterns in behavior and make a decision comprehensive decision.
Communicating the Decision
Once the decision has been made, we need to let the client know. This is a part of the process most of us dread. In my experience, the desire to avoid client backlash deters us from letting some difficult clients go. To help mitigate the immediate pushback, I prefer to communicate a termination in writing. A client termination letter gives the person time and space to absorb the information, and I can include a copy of their medical records.
The only exception is when a client has crossed a red line, and I need to cancel their next appointment. In this case, I will call the client first and then follow up with the letter.
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Just the Facts
When it comes to your communication, it's important to stick to statements of fact in the call and letter and to not offer the client a chance to dispute your decision. For example, a client who is being fired for constantly missing appointments should receive a communication like this:
"On Monday the 4th of October, you failed to attend an appointment you made for Samson. We have reviewed your account; in the past 12 weeks, you missed four appointments, all without providing sufficient notice or explanation. Failing to show up for scheduled appointments blocks a slot that another pet could have used and places extra strain on our team. At this time, we have decided we can not continue to be your veterinarian. I have enclosed a copy of your records you can give to your new provider. We wish you and Samson all the best."
Where the Buck Stops
In 11 years as an owner and practice manager, I have never had a client call or come to the clinic to demand that we continue to see them. If it does happen, our customer service representative (CSR) team members are trained to know that any discussion regarding termination should be passed to management and handled immediately.
There are other forms of pushback that terminated customers may employ. We have seen negative reviews from clients on social media, which usually don't reference the client's termination but just try to paint the practice negatively. They are hard to respond to, as you are not asking the client to contact you to resolve the situation. I usually provide a short note stating I'm disappointed they were unhappy with the service they received and, as I had previously communicated, felt it best if they found another clinic.
Finding the Right Balance
Ultimately, we don't want to fire every rude customer. Everyone has bad days, and sometimes we're going to be on the receiving end of that grumpiness. We do, however, owe it to our teams to protect them from people who make an already challenging job unpleasant or dangerous. In the end, it's about finding the right balance so we can offer the best care to our client pet owners and furry patients.